Comprehensive medical marijuana laws exist in the District of Columbia and 23 states, including Maryland. Eighteen additional states introduced bills in their most recent legislative session to create medical marijuana programs, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. With dispensaries up and running in Washington and a robust licensing process on the way in Maryland, it is easy to forget that a much larger battle still exists at the federal level in medical marijuana reform. Without change in the federal classification and regulation of marijuana, patients, physicians and researchers will continue to have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to obtain and understand this thousand-year-old medicine.
The passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 created a system for federal drug scheduling. Marijuana was determined to be Schedule I, meaning it has high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. This ranks marijuana as more dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone (all Schedule II substances). Today, this federal regulation still stands despite the many known medical applications for marijuana and patients who rely on it daily to survive. Even in states with the most complex medical marijuana programs, doctors are still unable to legally prescribe marijuana because of its scheduling and can only make recommendations.
But believe it or not, the federal government actually supplies patients with marijuana. The Investigational New Drug compassionate access research program was developed in 1976 and granted patients up to 9 pounds of marijuana a year. While it is no longer taking applicants, four individuals still receive marijuana from the government through this program. You may be thinking to yourself, "Wait, this doesn't make sense — why is the federal government telling me marijuana has no accepted medical use but still sending it to patients in the U.S.?" Congratulations! You have now reached the plane of confusion that federal marijuana policy calls home.
The legal status of marijuana has not only made the lives of patients and physicians more difficult, but it has resulted in a slew of bureaucratic roadblocks for scientific researchers who want to learn more about the drug. The Controlled Substances Act not only scheduled marijuana, but also put the Drug Enforcement Administration in charge of regulating cultivation for research purposes. The DEA has only ever issued one license to grow marijuana for research, to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Directly funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this monopoly on federally legal marijuana significantly increases the amount of time researchers must wait before they can undertake studies. When only one farm in the United States is able to produce marijuana for every research proposal accepted, and that farm is funded by NIDA, there is no surprise that only 6 percent of current U.S. marijuana studies investigate the benefits of medical marijuana, with the rest of the research focusing on the harms.
The time to reschedule marijuana is now. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015, more commonly referred to as the CARERS Act, seeks to make these important legislative reforms and has slowly been gaining momentum in congress since it was introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) in March of last year. The bill not only reschedules marijuana, but gives medical dispensaries access to banking services, requires the DEA to issue at least three licenses to cultivate marijuana for research (ending the NIDA monopoly), as well as authorizing Veterans Affairs clinicians to recommend marijuana to their patients in states with existing medical marijuana programs.
To learn more about the CARERS Act and how to get involved in drug policy reform of all types, contact the University of Maryland chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at firstname.lastname@example.org. To stay up to date with the chapter, meetings and events, like our Facebook page at facebook.com/
Olivia O'Keefe is a junior community health major. She is the president of the UMD chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. She can be reached at email@example.com.